Books like Revolution in World Missions and When Helping Hurts have many youth pastors and church leaders ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater of short-term trips. We calculate the $3,000 it costs to send a student to Honduras for a week and start to squirm thinking about all the good we could do with those funds in Honduras—if only the student stayed home.
I'm an advocate for wise stewardship and for doing away with our old colonial approach to missionary efforts. But I'm also concerned youth are getting left out of opportunities to be involved in the global church. Isn't there a place for students in this new paradigm of sustainability?
Of course, I understand why people balk at the traditional model of youth service trips, which usually goes something like this:
Spend a week in West Virginia or Mexico building a house and maybe running vacation Bible school for some local kids. Leave at the end of the week with lots of teary-eyed students, never to return. Repeat next year—just in a sexier location to make sure even more students will participate.
It isn't hard to see that this model is self-focused and unproductive.
Still, there are some good reasons why our church has opted to continue with our short-term mission trip program.
Aside from my suspicion that many who give to fund a student's trip wouldn't give to local and global missions otherwise, let me offer some of the less pragmatic reasons you shouldn't cancel next year's trip.
Short-Term Mission Trips Can Teach Sustainability and Partnerships
I'm grateful to belong to a church body that emphasizes church empowerment in our mission strategy. Sometimes we have healthy dialogue and even disagreement about the usefulness of short-term missions. But who says students can't participate meaningfully in the same kind of church empowerment we champion in our overall global missions strategy? I've seen firsthand that students can be the catalyst of these types of relationships, and when it happens, it's beautiful.
This past year, for example, one of my students focused his year-long senior project on the Haitian church with whom we partner in Nassau, Bahamas. He worked with community leaders to create a sustainable garden providing meals for hungry families in the neighborhood surrounding the church. He, another student, and I traveled to Nassau this spring, along with two of our pastors, to conduct a children's ministry workshop that allowed us to hand off some of the ministry we love to the faithful believers who live there year-round. When I returned with a team of 18 juniors and seniors this summer, they selflessly trained and encouraged our Haitian friends.
Short-Term Mission Trips Produce Long-Term Missionaries
Go ahead—ask the missionaries you know how God called them to the mission field. I have yet to meet a cross-cultural missionary who didn't first participate in a short-term trip. Most of the people we know who participate in missions by praying, giving, or going first served on short-term trips.
One girl in our church has become something of a poster child for what I hope students will take away from their trips. When I expressed disappointment that she couldn't join us again on a trip the summer after graduation, she reassured me it was okay since she'd gotten what she was supposed to from the experience. She said her task now is to create Christ-honoring change in the world through advocacy and fundraising. Wow. Talk about outgrowing her teacher! She put me to shame in her understanding of short-term missions. Currently, she's raising money for a Haitian orphanage struggling to continue its gospel ministry to kids outside Port Au Prince. All of this advocacy she relates back to her experiences on short-term trips.
Short-Term Mission Trips Create Unstoppable Kids
A South African friend once asked me, "How do we raise up kids who are unstoppable?" He recounted the days of his own youth during and just after apartheid. He and his friends had been zealous for the Lord, and he didn't see a parallel here in the United States. That question has spurred me on in ministry, and through experiences with students I've found pieces of the answer.
Take, for example, my students who got involved with special-needs peers at their public high school as a result of serving at a Joni and Friends Family Retreat. They started a club that gives such students an opportunity to participate in social activities after school. A group of students who served with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in New Jersey want to know where they can get involved with a soup kitchen in our own city. Another student is compiling an anthology of works by the Nassau team to raise awareness about the poverty of our Haitian friends. And some students from the same group are embarking on an experiment to "give more, spend less" in order to raise money for specific needs in the Haitian community.
Students are learning the all-sufficiency of Christ as they embark on adventures naturally beyond them. They are recognizing their role in the global church. They are becoming unstoppable.
We're still learning how to do this work cost-effectively in the name of wise stewardship. In a subsequent article, I'll share what we've learned about implementing a multi-trip model that removes emphasis from exciting travel destinations and puts it back on partnership.
Chelsea Kingston serves as youth director of spiritual development at Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel, Connecticut. She blogs at Where the Cloud Settles.